Hyperrhiz 10: Book/media reviews

Tom Lundborg, Politics of the Event: Time, Movement, Becoming

Kris Coffield


Lundborg, Tom. Politics of the Event: Time, Movement, Becoming. London: Routledge 2012, pp. 141, $140.00 hardcover.

Within hours of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, political pundits and media figureheads rushed to assign meaning to the events that had just unfolded and would continue to do so on television screens across the country, even unto the present day. For these commentators, images of planes striking the World Trade Center and penetrating the Pentagon represented a break with the political reality of the time, in which the assumed linkage of wealth and freedom underscoring capitalist democracies guaranteed their security from internal assault. Martial orders needed to be changed, following the prevailing narrative, to deal with a predominantly Muslim enemy, who could wreak havoc in any place, at any time. In Politics of the Event: Time, Movement, Becoming, however, Tom Lundborg approaches 9/11 and its attendant discourses from a decidedly different, more critical perspective. Rather than accept teleological accounts of the hijackings that predicate military intervention and enhanced surveillance upon an abjection of collective trauma, Lundborg offers a Deleuzean conceptualization of the event that resists historical closure and, instead, explores an evental becoming that moves in multiple directions simultaneously, escaping fixed spatiotemporal and normative boundaries. Problematizing the mediatic and governmental deployment of 9/11 as a border-producing vehicle allows Lundborg to challenge the stable partitioning of being from becoming and, in turn, outline an alternative hermeneutic strategy that mines the residual gaps between virtual potentiality and actualized systems of control.

Divided into seven chapters, Politics of the Event is committed to formulating a critical modality commensurate with disparate understandings of national and international happenings, both large and small. From the outset, Lundborg clearly enunciates his theoretical mission, stating that "the problem this book seeks to address is how to think about the relationship between two different concepts of the event: what philosopher Gilles Deleuze refers to as the pure event on the one hand, and on the other hand the historical event" (1). Lundborg contrasts the rhizomatic temporal ambiguity of the pure event's expression of an uncodable becoming with the historical event's insistence on chronological structure and strict spatial division, arguing that the latter is a practice that attempts to arrest the indeterminable movements of the former to "inscribe the temporal borders of the historical event and in so doing reproduce the limits of modern political life" (5). In a theme that echoes throughout the entire work, the tension between pure and historical events is presented as politically dynamic, with the paradoxes of the pure event constantly eliding semiotic actualization and, thus, prompting an insatiable endeavor to presence a being that is never fixed, but, instead, ceaselessly becomes. Highlighting numerous reports of vulnerability expressed in the wake of the assault on the New York City skyline, Lundborg spends much of the second chapter, entitled "Something abstract yet real," connecting the fertile gulf between pure and historical events to the concepts of chronos and aion, defined respectively as "the present as the constitutive element of time" and that which "eludes the present and lets only movements of past and future remain" (16). Aion collapses corporeally embodied and statically located temporal gestures, pointing toward a fluid evental temporality that, like the traumatic experience of the attacks, disrupts "the idea of an independently existing object, which can be correctly described or represented by an independently existing subject" (24).

Leaving the thought of firm subjectivities to burn amidst the rubble at Ground Zero, Lundborg explains in his third chapter, "Returning, rebuilding, reimagining," that processes of actualization, from a Deleuzean angle, are always already open-ended (despite being productive of concretized states of affairs) and tied to binary oppositional processes of counter-actualization that regress states of affairs into agonistically volatile pure events. Systems of control attempt to interpret and normalize the spatiotemporal loci of the pure event's uncertainty through "retrospective positioning," orienting the trajectory of an event's movement in relation to, and after the determination of, its final outcome. Lundborg links this ex post facto temporal ordering with the sequential logic of chronos, which "regularizes time by connecting the future and the past to a seemingly coherent and homogenous movement, which measures the movements of bodies as it fills and limits them by inscribing a corporeal content or matter" (30). Through the actualized embodiment of persons who went missing on 9/11, the Twin Towers and their architectural replacements, and "America" as a nationalist rallying cry, the author evinces the deliberate erasure of capillary trauma by memorial artifacts as a means of assigning content to an otherwise unknown and disruptive force, one that surpasses everyday aesthetic sensibility. At the same time, repetitions of difference enmeshed with our continuous search for definitive evental meaning manifest a "free play of signularities...without a determinable center" (40). If homogenous meaning were possible to actualize from the pure event of 9/11, Lundborg intimates, we wouldn't be faced with a multiplicity of deductive angles from which to choose as sites of analysis. In this way, the unassimilable specter of trauma — namely, its inability to be fully localized in a pre-given being — can be said to exceed representation, dissociating the becoming of pure traumatic event from states of affairs that claim to grasp its totality.

Evental becoming is the subject of Lundborg's fourth and fifth chapters, respectively titled "The becoming of 9/11" and "The politics of folding." Taking the view that "different forms or practices of response produce the content and meaning of the event," (45) Lundborg reasons that institutions and policies created in the wake of 9/11, like the doctrine of preemptive warfare and Department of Homeland Security, are the result of fearful affective shifts that animate the actualization of virtual threats in absentia, such that the threat need not culminate in a conclusive catastrophic act. In drawing a bright line between what came "before" and "after" the historical event of the terror attacks, agents responsible for directing preemptive security discourses feed the conatus of banoptic and biopolitical disciplinary apparatuses, which rely on the repetitive re-articulation within the Western security imaginary of 9/11's temporal splitting for their continued relevance. Ergo, the border-making power of the historical event of 9/11 can be thought through as "an ongoing process of becoming — a becoming that relies upon a continuous process of producing the historical event without ever reaching a final point of completion," (61) whereby a nagging difference persistently reconfigures the historical event, blocking its ability to reify 9/11's being and content once and for all. If the preemptive War on Terror is "just another attempt to reinforce a historical and spatial imaginary" based on (il)liberal accounts of subjectivity and power, (86), then the need for reinforcement implies that the insurgent pure event relentlessly deterritorializes artificial spatiotemporal barriers circumscribing the "inside" from the "outside" of those territories over which the historical event is presumed to have dominion. Consequently, both the pure event's deterritorialization of sovereign identity and the historical event's reterritorialization of geopolitical cartography are exposed to a contingent "process of folding, unfolding, and refolding — a triple process that seeks to capture and incorporate the paradoxes and movements of the pure event through the formalization of expression, but which never fully succeeds in the task of doing so" (70). Within the fold, a gap emerges between the pure event and response it provokes, according to Lundborg, from which the motility of the pure event exceeds and paradoxically reaffirms the international state system. It is this "constitutive 'outside'" that Lundborg valorizes in his sixth chapter, "Another politics of the event," and ensuing conclusion as a space "that expresses a potentiality as well as a risk" associated with an immanent reading of 9/11 (101), one that extrapolates indefinite conceptual connections from the historical certitude that legitimizes the state's monopoly over deploying and narrating violence.

As a Deleuzean account of evental politics, Politics of the Event succeeds on multiple levels. Lundborg's primary objective is to problematize the hegemonic narrative of 9/11 as a, if not the, defining political event of the early twenty-first century. Moreover, the author goes beyond critical analyses that merely unmask the disciplinary assumptions and alterity-generating practices of America's ongoing War on Terror, showing that the 9/11-inspired premise of these campaigns (as reactions to a clarion, discernible historical shift) rests on an ontological flaw — reactionary political positions are derived from 9/11 on the presumption of its singular being and subsequent bracketing of indeterminate becoming from the conditions of interpretive possibility. Lundborg is particularly convincing when explicating ways to move beyond the molar/molecular binarism that pervades modern security imaginaries, in which micropolitical trauma and fear are concatenated with the "to come" and macropolitical social categories. Citing affirmative lines of flight that repel molar or molecular capture, he calls for an ethics amor fati that unearths how elements relating in a sociopolitical assemblage "can enter new actualizations that break with dominant modes of representation" (100). Thinking this way allows us to divest ourselves of totalizing historical narratives and the binary spatiotemporal schisms that they produce, letting us instead focus on auscultating the relation between our own self-generative experiential becoming and that of the event that precedes, succeeds, and becomes enfolded within our subjective imaging of planes striking financial and militaristic icons.

For theorists operating in the nascent philosophical trajectories of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (OOO) , like myself, Lundborg's monograph offers a surprising number of propitious insights. Object-oriented thinkers follow a "flat ontology," in which all forms of being are said to exist equally, from Africa to antelope to Aladdin. Furthermore, OOO asserts that all entities are equally "real," in the sense that they produce material effects and distort one another in the same fundamental fashion, owing to the inability of objects to translate relations with other entities into exhaustive knowledge of their relata. While this preservation of Kantian finitude allows object-oriented scholars to anthrodecentrize theoretical engagement by undercutting the philosophical privileging of human consciousness, their ontological realism, speculative though it may be, converges neatly with Lundborg's insistence that conceptual and evental encounters "have to be seen as real, a real part of our ongoing processes of becoming," rather than performative interventions into solely subjective political imaginaries. Similarly, Lundborg's repeated call for an exploration of the incalculable, unactualizable reserve of the pure event resonates with OOO's notion of withdrawal, whereby objectal being is said to retain an essence or potential in excess of any relation or qualitative manifestation. Small wonder, then, that one of OOO's primary champions, Levi Bryant , is heavily influenced by many of the same Deleuzean principles applied by Lundborg, a decidedly non-object-oriented theorist. And that may be the penultimate virtue of Politics of the Event: even in the absence of a common philosophical refrain, the work fosters ontological kinship with ideascapes that likewise probe the opaque movements of unmapped becoming, phenomenologically pluralizing the event of 9/11 by attuning aesthetico-political sensibility to the murmurs of its material traces.


Notes

  1. For Brian Massumi, 'retrospective positioning' is a process in which "points or positions appear retrospectively, working backward from the movement's end. It is as if, in our thinking, we put targets all along the path." This process is further explained in Massumi's Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).
  2. Here, I'm referring to Spinozan conatus, which be defined in his Ethics (par. 3, prop. 6) as "each thing, as far as it lies in itself, striving to preserve in its being."
  3. Object-oriented ontology is a subset of speculative realism that, in short, holds that objects exist independently of human consciousness and other entities, and cannot be exhaustively known or represented by relations with one another. For object-oriented philosophers, all relations distort their relata in the same fundamental, inexhaustible manner (relations do not completely exhaust objectal potential or being) and, therefore, situate entities on equal footing with one another, human and nonhuman alike. Graham Harman was the first philosopher to adopt the appellation 'object-oriented philosophy' for his work, doing so in his 1999 doctoral dissertation "Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects." For more, see Harman's Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Peru: Open Court, 2002) and The Quadruple Object (London: Zero Books, 2011).
  4. The term 'anthrodecentrism' is a neologism that refers to object-oriented philosophy's rejection of post-Kantian privileging of human consciousness and experience, epitomized by Kant's "Copernican Revolution," which claims that entities become products of human cognition by conforming to the mind of a perceiving subject.
  5. Levi Bryant coined the term 'object-oriented ontology' and is the author of Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011), in which he expounds upon a version of OOO called 'onticology' that justifies object-oriented principles according to Deleuzean concepts of virtuality and actuality, as well as the systems analysis of Niklas Luhmann and autopoietic theories devised by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.

DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/010.r08